For the first time in more than one hundred years, researchers have found newborn baby tortoises on the tiny Galapagos Island of Pinzón. Good news indeed since the population has struggled after being nearly decimated by human impact.
Whalers and invasive rats devastated the species when they arrived aboard ships in the 17th and 18th centuries; the rats then spent more than a century preying on the island’s hatchlings, according to the Galapagos Conservancy.
The tiny turtle find validates more than 50 years of conservation efforts, which have included growing hatchlings in captivity until they are large enough to be released without falling prey to rats, as well as a push to eradicate the rodents. The arid island was finally declared rat-free in 2012.
The Galápagos Islands, home to the giant tortoises and many other unique species were first discovered in 1535 by Tomas de Berlanga, the bishop of Panama, when his ship drifted off course while on its way to Peru. He named the Islands Las Encantadas, “The Enchanted,” and marveled at the thousands of giant tortoises living there. Because of these tortoises, the Islands became known as the Galápagos—the Spanish word for tortoise.
Sailors—explorers, pirates and whalers, saw the huge tortoises, which weigh up to 550 pounds, as a convenient source of fresh meat, for the tortoises can survive long periods of time without food or water, and can live in the hold of a ship for up to a year. When British naturalist Charles Darwin visited the Galápagos in 1835, aboard the HMS Beagle, the islands’ residents showed him how to tell which island a tortoise belonged to by the shape of its shell. Pondering the causes for this localized diversity led Darwin to develop his Theory of Evolution.
At the time of his visit there were around a quarter of a million tortoises living on the islands. Today less than 15,000 remain. Of the original 15 subspecies, only eleven are left—three have become extinct and the fourth has only one individual left. Thousands of the animals were slaughtered by the crews of sailing ships and, when the islands were colonized in 1832, pigs, goats, rats and other animals also arrived, eating eggs and young tortoises and destroying nests and food supplies.
It is believed that the tortoises, who can float on the sea for several days, came to the Galapagos from the South American mainland. Once on the islands they encountered no enemies. Each of the islands presented its own unique environmental challenges, and the isolated tortoises evolved to take advantage of these differences—tortoises on islands with taller vegetation have longer necks.
Because of the tortoises extreme longevity, visitors to the Islands may unknowingly photograph some of the same tortoises that Darwin himself observed back in 1835.
There are so many strange stories, landscapes, and creatures on these islands which inspired Charles Darwin to discover the principles of evolution. Please join us on our Galapagos Islands tours.